So, you've probably heard an abundance of talk about "hedging" in pecan orchards lately and may have wondered what is it and if you should be hedging in your orchards. Well, I hope to shine a little light on the topic here.
What is Hedging?
Hedging refers to cutting orchard trees back similar to a hedge row. It is the act of pruning your orchard trees so as to grow trees more like a bush as opposed to allowing the trees to grow freely thereby eventually shading out all of the lateral pecan growth and allowing only a "top crop" to produce.
Where did hedging come from?
Hedging pecan trees has been practiced for many years in the western US pecan producing regions such as west Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, but has just recently started to take hold in the eastern US pecan producing regions. It was thought that eastern varieties may not respond well to hedging, but it seems that way of thinking is of the past.
The benefits of hedging pecans are numerous and I will list some of them here. Hedging allows for more new growth on your trees, which in turn translates to more pecans if hedged properly. Hedging prevents orchards from becoming overcrowded. In many orchard whether young or old it is very common to see overcrowding if the orchard is not hedged. Whether you have older trees (50+) on a wider spacing such as 45ft by 45ft, or you have a younger orchard planted on a 30ft by 30ft it is common to see the orchard overcrowd if trees are not removed or hedged. A good rule of thumb is that during mid day, when the sun is directly overhead, you should have 50% sunlight in the orchard floor, if you have less, your orchard may be getting overcrowded and your production will eventually decline. Grow pecans not pecan wood! One of my favorite things about hedging on our farm is that we keep from growing pecan wood and we grow more pecans. If you have ever seen an older orchard (50-75+) you may notice how after about 15 feet from the floor, the average tree splits into 2 or three main branches and then goes up significantly higher before branching out to smaller pecan producing branches. If you will notice it looks like the orchard is growing more pecan tree than pecans. When an orchard is maintained properly with hedging the trees will produce pecans all the way up and down each side of the tree as well as the top of the tree, this is a far more efficient use of land. Airflow is another benefit of hedging. When an orchard is maintained with hedging, airflow through the orchard is greatly improved thereby improving conditions that are less conducive for scab to thrive. Your sprayer can only spray so high. When trees are allowed to grow without restriction, they tend to grow quite tall, and if you have ever tried spraying older taller trees, you know that the coverage can be quite poor past a certain height from the orchard floor. Finally, limb control. One thing we have noticed with hedging is that we pick up far fewer limbs in our hedged orchards, and we loose less limbs during high winds also. There is far more data available on the benefits of hedging your pecan orchards than I have touched on here, but these are a few of the benefits we have seen on our farm.
What are the cons of hedging?
The most immediate drawback that we noticed on our farm was a slight loss of production in our per acre yields. However this can be managed better that what we originally did. We should have spaced our hedging out further and done more hedging during an "on year". Another drawback is up-font cost. To purchase a hedging machine is quite expensive, I have heard around 400k for a new machine, however you can get custom hedging done if you are in an area where a nearby grower has one. Many hedging machine owners will do custom hedging to help offset the cost of the machine. However you don't have to use a large hedging machine to prune your trees. I met a grower in west Texas who prunes all 400 acres of their orchard with a pruning tower.
Hedging your pecan orchard can have many benefits, when approached correctly with a hedging plan. However, if approached casually with a onetime pruning in mind, you may be disappointed in the results. It is always best to speak with your scout or pecan consultant before making any decision concerning the health of your pecan orchard.